Review by Basil Ransome-Davies
Adultery. It crops up everywhere. Few grown-up pastimes are as popular as disobeying the sixth Commandment. Where would novels, plays and movies be without it? It’s transgressive, it’s exciting, it motors the story. Historically, it has been far more tolerable for men than for women. A man needs to know his children are his own; it affects inheritance rights. As so often, an elevated moral code has heavy financial implications. Partly for this reason, a cheating female has more dramatic potential for authors than an errant husband. Her playing away can occur in many registers: the emotional destruction of a yearning, unhappy wife (Madame Bovary); a brief, romantic, excusable interlude (Now, Voyager); a sin that arraigns the whited sepulchres of a self-righteous community rather than the sinner (The Scarlet Letter); a ‘motiveless’, poisonous lying slander (Othello); a crucible of reawakening through ithyphallic sex (Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Powerful, passionate stuff. By contrast, in Happy Ever After it’s a spur-of-the-moment knee-tremble in a local swimming-pool shower stall. A one-off, a shallow blip on the graph.of fidelity. Nonetheless it has perilous repercussions.
The initial situation is that of a yuppie/millennial couple, Naomi and Charlie Fallon, and their two-year-old daughter, Prue, who have relocated from London to the East Kent seaside. They have made few new friends and thanks to a costly business error by Charlie have had to settle for the house they could afford rather than their dream home. It needs plenty of doing up, so the builders are in, meaning regular domestic chaos, including a pigeon infestation, till they are finished. Charlie, an inventor pitching high-tech innovations to manufacturers, is also a depressive in therapy, perhaps a fragile combination. Naomi, an arts-admin professional, has to balance managing Prue with supervising the arrangement of a local ‘biennale’, an art exhibition that will validate her efforts. Her colleagues pile work on her. Both parents are keen to complete their family with another child. This entails an intensive study of ovulation charts.
Domestic noir is the sub-genre here, a nexus where family ideals collide with the dark side of human emotions. There’s enough ‘normal’ stress there to create anxiety for any whitebread household. When worse happens – when Naomi surprises herself by not saying no to a tall dark stranger’s interruption of her shower, subsequently finding she is pregnant – the plot evolves into a labyrinthine history of guilt, deception, stalking, gaslighting, invasive pursuit and ultimately capital crime. Though Naomi’s dilemma is the pivot of the action, the story unfolds via a range of perspectives and intermittent time shifts. ‘Straight’ narrative is strategically laid aside at intervals for social-media excerpts, initially cryptic till the dots are joined in a fatal dénouement (though even then trailing questions remain – this is no comforting whodunit). Tweets, often long predating the main action, suggest a history of misdeeds, panic and recrimination. Inevitably, an occasional red herring swims across the text.
Naomi doesn’t tell Charlie of the shower encounter, compounding her mis-step with a guilty secret, and when the tall dark stranger, ‘Séan Salinger’, disappears, she sets out to trace him, effectively setting herself up as a freelance private investigator. Salinger, though not as hard to track down as his namesake the reclusive author, is both elusive and active. He comes and goes in his van, intermittently visible on the streets, while working more darkly and secretly to intensify the pressure on Naomi. Her oddly motivated quest to find him lags behind his skulduggery, the dynamic of a revenge plot that is not fully unwound till a final dramatic confrontation. As the story proceeds, hints of Salinger’s hidden malice emerge in oddly guignol elements: the malicious use of a kebab skewer to fabricate Prue’s bite marks on a woman at the care centre (would trained carers not know the difference?), resulting in Prue’s suspension from the group, and more weirdly a python brought along on a heavy-menace mission to intimidate a woman into silence by ingesting her little dog before her very eyes as she is trapped on the other side of a glass door. Some villains will stop at nothing.
Alongside such outbursts of modern gothic is the aura of everyday worry that won’t go away, and is only worsened by the pretence, denial and underhand measures adopted to cope with it together with the guilt and desperation they induce. Frankly, Naomi’s morals are on the seamy side. Does that make her a bad person? Not necessarily, if you believe that the preservation, or the simulacrum, of a united family is vital. It’s not a problem she can confidently share with Mumsnet, she knows that stalking is not easily dealt with via the police and husband Charlie is surely not accidentally named – he’s hardly a tower of strength, more snowflakey. If the solution she ultimately chooses is radical, the drift of the narrative makes it seem the only one possible.
This is MacDonald’s début novel and I’ve little doubt there will be others to come, but at 405 pages I felt that fewer words might mean more concentrated effects, turning the screw tighter, plus a more empathetic attitude to the perils of Naomi. In Barry Forshaw’s encyclopaedic Crime Fiction: a Reader’s Guide he drily observes (apropos James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, a 90-page story in my Cain omnibus which made an entire classic movie) that ‘elephantiasis has over taken the crime novel’. That happens to be a view I share, not my prejudice but undeniably my bias. Sometimes less is more.
C. C. MacDonald, Happy Ever After (Harvill Secker: London, 2020). 9781787301597, 405 pp., paperbackBUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)